A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
May 25, 2014
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (NRSV).
According to Karoline Lewis, Jesus never stopped talking.
Lewis is a preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. She wrote a commentary on today’s Gospel lesson that begins with these words (and I quote):
“Jesus never stopped talking.”[i]
What she meant was this: that Jesus never stopped talking between the passage we read last week and the passage we read this week. In fact, he does most of the talking in this section of John’s Gospel we call the Farewell Discourse (chapters 13-17). Last week he had told his disciples that he would be leaving, and tried to reassure them that they would be all right, even in his absence. If you were here you may remember that I pointed out how he calls them “little children” in 13:33, and in 14:1 says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” So, most of what he says in this section of the Gospel is addressed to little children with troubled hearts. You need to get that picture in your head. You need to see Jesus leaning toward his disciples, pleading with them: “Little children, do not let your hearts be troubled!” That’s the context for everything he says in these verses, and when it comes to interpreting Scripture, context is everything. So, those people who use John 14:6 in their evangelistic preaching, who stand on street corners shouting to strangers that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that if they don’t come through him they will never get to the Father, may be addressing the wrong audience, in the wrong way. These words were not preached to strangers, but to friends; not to the unbelievers but to believers; they were whispered to the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples—people like you—and people who were troubled by the idea that he would be leaving them soon—just as you would be. Which raises an interesting question: how have we gotten along without him all these years, at least, without his physical presence?
When I looked at this passage last week I noticed how full of promises it was. Jesus tells his disciples that even though he is leaving he will not leave them orphaned. He will ask the Father to send someone to be with them forever, the Spirit of truth, who will be in them and abide in them. But they still look troubled. And so he says that in God’s good time he himself will come to them; they will see him. “Because I live you will live,” he says. “You will know that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you. You will be loved by the Father, and I will love you.” All these promises! You can see how hard Jesus is working to reassure the troubled hearts of his disciples.
It sounds like something a single mother might say to her children if she were going to take a job in another city, and needed to leave them with their grandmother for a while. When it was time to go she would gather them up and say:
“Now, kids, I don’t want you to get upset, but I have to go away for a little while.”
“Can we come with you?”
“No, not now. Later.”
“But where are you going?”
“I’m going to get a place ready for you, and then I’ll come and get you, and take you there, so we can all be together. It’s not far. You know the way.”
But one of them, little Tommy, says, “No, we don’t! We don’t even know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”
And she tousles his hair and says, “I AM the way, silly! Trust me. When I get the new place ready I will come and get you. You don’t have to worry about a thing.”
And then the promise that probably matters most of all. One of them asks, “Who’s going to take care of us while you’re away?” Because, you know, they’re just little kids. They can’t make it on their own. They know that as well as anyone.
“Your Grammy’s going to take care of you,” she says. “Anything I can do, she can do. You don’t have to worry about a thing.”
And that’s the promise I want to talk about today.
Jesus doesn’t promise his disciples that their grandmother will take care of them, but he does tell them that he will ask the Father, and the Father will send them a paraclete (When I taught New Testament to college freshmen there was always some smart aleck who would say, “A parakeet? A small, brightly colored tropical bird?” No. Not a parakeet. A paraclete. P-A-R-A-C-L-E-T-E). It comes from the Greek verb parakaleo, which means, “to call alongside.” Think of the Paraclete as the one you call alongside yourself when you need help, or comfort, or maybe just a friend. For example:
- One of my earliest memories is running across the back yard barefooted at our house in Wise, Virginia. Isn’t that one of the most delicious feelings in the world: bare feet on soft grass? But then I stepped on a bee and it stung me and that had never happened before. I howled with pain, and hobbled to the back door and into the house, still howling. My dad came running into the kitchen, scooped me up in his arms, took me to the living room, stretched me out on the sofa, and said, “Wait right there.” And then he went to the bathroom and came back with a pair of tweezers which he used to pull that little black stinger from my heel. He showed it to me, and then went into the kitchen to throw it away and mix up a paste made of water and baking soda. He dabbed that on my stung heel gently, and almost immediately I began to feel better.
- It was around that same time I had a nightmare I can still remember, one that sat me bolt upright in my little bed beside the window on the second floor of that house. I was looking at two circles made out of construction paper, and held together with one of those brass brads. The front circle had a little window cut in it, and the back circle had a picture of a witch, so that when you turned the back circle you would see the witch fly past the window over and over again. Somehow, in my dream, it turned into a real witch, flying past my window, and I sat up and yelled for Mom. I heard her feet hit the floor immediately, and then she came upstairs and sat by my bed and stroked my troubled head and taught me the words of Psalm 56:3: “What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.”
- And on the first day of first grade she took me to school, where I ended up standing in a line with all the other first graders as Miss Cherry checked our names off her list. “This is Jimmy Somerville,” my mom said. Miss Cherry looked down her list, and then looked at me over the tops of her glasses. “James?” she asked. I nodded, and that was my name for the rest of the year. But then Mom hugged me goodbye and went back to the car and I was left standing there with a bunch of kids I didn’t know. I began to feel lonely and sad, but then I saw my best friend Bobby Thompson coming across the school yard with his mom. “Bobby!” I yelled, and he came running over and stood beside me. Miss Cherry looked over the top of her glasses. “Robert?” she asked. And he nodded his head. But there we were, James and Robert, two peas in a first grade pod, as happy as we could be.
Do you see how much it helps to have someone you can call alongside yourself when you are hurt, or scared, or lonely—a paraclete—whether it’s your dad, or your mom, or your best friend, or someone else altogether? Jesus told his disciples, “I have to leave you, but don’t worry: I’m going to ask the Father to send you a paraclete.” “Oh, goody!” they must have thought. “A paraclete. Just what we needed.”
But it was just what they needed.
Because Jesus doesn’t only promise them a paraclete, he promises them “another” paraclete. He makes it clear that the Father has already sent one Paraclete, and that was him—Jesus—the one the disciples could always call alongside themselves when they needed a helper, a comforter, or a friend. Now he’s leaving but he’s going to send them another Paraclete, and that’s the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is going to be able to do everything for them that Jesus has done, with one important difference: the Spirit is going to be with them forever.
Now I think you’re beginning to see the answer to my question: how have we gotten along without the physical presence of Jesus all these years? With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the one we can always call alongside. And these days I find I need that kind of help more than ever. Because I can’t call for my Mom in the middle of the night. She’s in a nursing home in West Virginia, struggling with dementia, wondering why she’s there. And I can’t call on my Dad anymore; we buried him four months ago. And I’m not sure where my friend Bobby is these days; I don’t think I even have his phone number. The paracletes of my childhood are no longer with me, physically; no longer able to come alongside me in the way they once did. I’m sure that’s true for many of you, as well. When you wake up in the middle of the night you may not even know whose name to call out. And I think that’s why Jesus bears down so hard in this passage to reassure his disciples that even though he is leaving them they will never be alone. This helper, this friend, this comforter, this Paraclete, is as close as their next breath. All they have to do is call and somehow, in ways they can’t begin to understand, God himself will come rushing to their rescue.
That preaching professor I was telling you about? Karoline Lewis? I got to hear her lecture last week in Minneapolis. She was talking about John’s Gospel and especially this part of John. She said something about the word “holy” that I had never considered before: that it was almost like God’s family name. I mean, there’s the Holy Spirit, right? But there is also the “Holy Father,” the one Jesus prays to in John 17. And then, at the end of John 6 Peter says to Jesus, “We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God.” So you’ve got the Holy Spirit, the Holy Father, and the Holy One: all the members of the Holy family. And then listen to this: in John 20 Jesus breathes on his disciples and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and you might imagine that in that moment, as they breathe in that Spirit, they are sanctified.
Do you know what that word means, sanctify? It means to make holy. It’s what Jesus prays for in John 17:17; he asks the Holy Father to sanctify the disciples in the truth. And in John 14 he talks about the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I can imagine Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit onto his disciples as a way of making them holy, so that Peter, Andrew, James, John, and all the rest, those smelly fishermen, those dusty disciples, are sanctified. In that moment they became part of God’s holy family.
So when Jesus promises his disciples later in this passage that they will know that he is in the Father, and the Father in him, and he in them, he may only be saying that the Father’s kind of holiness—the kind that loves the sinful world enough to send his only Son—is the very air that he has been breathing, and soon it will be the air that they are breathing, and it is this kind of holiness that defines God’s family, or as Karoline Lewis said, “Holiness is what holds us together.”[ii]
I’ve been thinking about that in the last few days: about the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Father, and Jesus, the Holy One of God. I’ve been thinking about how he said, “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Maybe he was saying that holiness passes between us like breath, from the Father to the Son, from the Son to the Spirit, and from the Spirit to the church, and that it is this holiness—this mutual, self-giving, and sacrificial love—that marks us as members of his family. I was playing with that idea last week and wrote down all the “holy” words I could think of: Holy Father, Holy One, Holy Spirit…and then I wrote down Holy Communion, and thought about how we gather for that just as little children might sit down around the family table at mealtime. And once again we find Jesus physically present. We take his body in our hands. We taste his love on our lips. We remember the way he brought us into God’s family and how much it cost him. It is a holy moment. Jesus said, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Maybe that’s what he was talking about. But one thing is certain: we are not alone. And all those promises Jesus made?
Every one of them has been kept.
[i] Karoline Lewis, on the “Working Preacher” website: (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1995)
[ii] From my notes, taken at the Festival of Homiletics in the sanctuary of Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.